St Andrew’s Day November 30th

The Saltire – flag of Scotland

Saint Andrew was the first Apostle and he introduced his brother, Simon Peter, to Jesus. Not much about his later life is known but the idea that he was martyred on a X-shaped cross, the saltire, is probably a medieval invention. Formerly, a simple fisherman and so patron of fishermen, and fishmongers. Also, the patron saint of Scotland and Russia; of singers and pregnant woman, and efficacious in offering protection against sore throats and gout. More about St. Andrew below.

His association with Russia comes from Eusebius who quotes Origen recording that Andrew preached in Scythia. The Chronicle of Nestor says he travelled to Kiev and Novgorod and so became a patron saint of Ukraine, Romania and Russia. (Wikipedia).

Scottish legends has St Andrew both visiting Scotland and some of his relics coming to Fife in the 4th Century or the 8th Century. St Rule was tasked with taking some of Andrew’s relics to the edges of the world, and he turned up in Fife with a kneecap, arm and finger bone which were kept in St Rule’s Church and which gave St Andrew’s name to the town. of St Andrews is also famous as the home of golf and the oldest University in Scotland, (founded in 1412). The relics were transferred to the Cathedral, but they were destroyed in the Reformation. In 1979 the Archbishop of Amalfi gifted a piece of Saint Andrew’s shoulder blade to St Andrews and Pope Paul VI gave further remains to Scotland in 1969

a shoulder blade reputedly belonging to Andrew was gifted to Scotland by the Archbishop of Amalfi in 1879 and Pope Paul VI presented further remains to the nation in 1969.

The Day is an official bank holiday in Scotland and is celebrated with events all over the country, including a torchlight procession in Glasgow. (https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/scotland/articles/what-is-st-andrews-day-and-how-do-people-celebrate-it-in-scotland/).

Celebrate with a Haggis and a Whisky!

In Kent and Sussex Andrewtide gave the right to hunt squirrels, and in Hasted’s History of Kent (1782) the day is said to allow the ‘lower kind’ to form a lawless rabble hunting any manner of hares, partridges and pheasants. (Perpetual Almanac by Charles Kightly).

St Andrew in London

On the corner of Leadenhall Street and St Mary Axe in the City of London is one of the very few medieval Churches that survived the Great Fire of London is 1666. It was sheltered by the firebreak that was the Leadenhall, a big market building made of stone.

The Church is the Maypole Church as it was here the Maypole or the shaft was stored under the eves of the Church when not in use. Hence, St Andrew’s sobriquet of ‘Undershaft’. The MayDay riot in 1517 put an end to the dancing around the Maypole but the pole itself survived until 1547 when, in a Puritan riot, the ‘stynking idol’ was destroyed. (see my May Day blog post here for more more details of Mayday.)

This is where the great London historian John Stow is buried. His Survey of London is one of the best sources for Medieval and Tudor London. Every three years, on April 5th or thereabouts, there is a commemorative service and his quill is changed. The Lord Mayor attends and it is organised by Stow’s Guild – the Merchant Taylors.

John Stow, author of the ‘Survey of London‘ first published in 1598. Available at the wonderful Project Gutenberg: ‘https://www.gutenberg.org/files/42959/42959-h/42959-h.htm’

There is also a plaque to Hans Holbein, but no one knows, for sure, where he is buried. He died in London in 1543, possibly of plague.

Agas Map 1561 showing St Andrews (right centre)

First Published on 30th November 2022, Revised and republished on 30th November 2023

May 8th Helston Furry Dance

At the end of the May Day/Beltane Festival Helston in Cornwall holds its Furry (or Floral) Dance. It is normally on the 8th May, but it changes date if the 8th is a Sunday or a Monday (Helston’s market day) so this year it was held on Friday 5th May.

Padstow holds, perhaps, the most famous May Day festival on May 1st. Padstow feels more of a ‘pagan’ festival, while Helston is a more sedate, gentlemanly, dance. Padstow is more fuelled by a belly full of ale, while Helston by a Pims No 1, or a Gin and Tonic?

Do, have a look at both youtube videos and watch the Padstow one until you see the ‘obby ‘orse and the teaser dancing.

Children born between the two days, May 1st and May 8th are considered to have been ‘born with the skill of man and beast and power over both.’

May 2nd. This Stinking Idol & the End of May Day

An Imagined Scene at the Maypole at St Andrew Undershaft
An Imagined Scene at the Maypole at St Andrew Undershaft

Philip Stubbes, in his Anatomy of Abuses of 1583, fired a broadside into the tradition of dancing around the Maypole when he wrote a vitriolic attack on pagan practices. He said they had ‘as Superintendent and Lord ouer their pastimes and sportes: namely, Sathan Prince of Hell’ as they erected ‘this stinking Idoll’. Stubbes suggested that of the maids that went out to the woods on May Eve less than one-third returned ‘undefiled’.

The Maypole was stored at St Andrew Cornhill, which became known as St Andrew Undershaft. In 1517 it was attacked during the Evil May Day riot, which the Recorder of the time, Thomas More, helped quell. (300 were arrested and one hanged). The shaft was then kept under the eves of the houses in Shaft Alley but apparently banned from being raised.

But in 1549 the curate of nearby St Katharine Cree Church made an inflammatory speech which lead to a Puritan mob cutting the shaft into pieces and burning it. I always imagine the Curate’s sermons to be along the same lines as Phillip Stubbes attack on the Maypole:

But their chiefest iewel they bring from thence is the Maie-poale,
which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: They haue
twentie, or fourtie yoake of Oxen, euery Oxe hauing a sweete
Nosegaie of flowers tyed on the tip of his homes, and these Oxen
drawe home this Maie-poale (this stinking ldoll rather) which is
couered all ouer with Flowers and Hearbes, bound round about
with strings from the top to the bottome, and sometimes painted
with variable collours, with two or three hundred men, women and
children following it, with great deuotion. And thus being reared

vp, with handkerchiefes and flagges streaming on the top, they
strawe the ground round about, bind green boughes about it, set
vp Summer Haules, Bowers, and Arbours hard by it. And then fa!
they to banquet and feast, to leape and daunce about it, as the

a Heathen people did, at the dedication of their ldolles, whereof this
is a perfect patteme, or rather the thing it selfe. I haue heard it
crediblie reported (and that viua voce) by men of great grauity,
credite, and reputation, that of fourtie, threescore, or a hundred Maides,
going to the wood ouemight, there haue scarcely the third part of them returned home againe vndefiled.

Phillip Stubbes from ‘A CRITICAL EDITION OF PHILIP STUBBES’S ANATOMIE OF ABUSES‘ by MARGARET JANE KIDNIE

The Maypole in the Strand seems to have survived until the beginning of the Civil War, (1644) when it was destroyed. But at the Restoration of Charles II another huge Maypole was joyously erected 134 ft high (41 metres) there and danced around till 1713 when it was replaced. And sold to Isaac Newton who used it to support the biggest telescope in Europe which was erected in Wanstead by a friend.

And that, my friends, is how you get from Superstition to Science in one easy story.

Old Print of Isaac Newton
Old Print of Isaac Newton

Postscript. I have always said that the sermon that led to the destruction of the Shaft in 1549 was made at St Paul but cannot remember where I read this. The suggestion that the Maypole in Cornhill was not used after 1517 seems strange because why then would it rouse a crowd to riot in 1549? Of the sources I have at hand, the London Encyclopedia mentions the riot of 1517 in its entry on St Andrew Undershaft but says nothing to say how St Andrew was involved while ‘Layers of London’ says ‘It was last raised in 1517 when ensuing riots led to the celebration being banned.’ which is definitive sounding. But is it? I wonder, if it was banned for a year or two then allowed again?

May 1st May Day

Bringing the Maypole, Bedfordshire. Image from ‘Romantic Britain’

Maypoles were often stored during the year. A few days before May Day they were repainted, and bedecked with May Garlands – mostly made from Hawthorn. The Maypole used in London in 1660 was 134 feet high. Tall straight trees were used, sometimes of Larch, and they might be spliced together to get the requisite height. John Stow says that each parish in London had their own Maypole, or combined with a neighbouring Parish. The main Maypole was on the top of the Cornhill, in Leadenhall Street, and it was stored under the eves of St Andrew’s Church which became known as St Andrew’s Undershaft as a result.

The celebrations begin on May Eve because the Celtic calendar starts the day at Dusk. This seems strange to us even though we perversely ‘start’ our day at Midnight just after everyone has gone to bed! The other choice, and maybe the most logical is, Dawn, but Dawn and Dusk are difficult to fix. Midnight was chosen by Julius Caesar when he created the Julian Calendar. Midnight has the virtue of being a fixed metric, being half way between Dawn and Dusk.

Celebrations centred around the Bonfire, and for the Celts was sacred to the fire God Belinus, and May Day was called Beltane. Bonfires continued to be a part of the celebration into the 16th Century, and in places until the 20th Century. According to folklore tradition, the bonfire should be made of nine types of wood, collected by nine teams of married men (or first born men). They must not carry any metal with them and the fire has to be lit by rubbing oak sticks together or a wooden awl twisted in a wooden log. The people have to run sunwise around the fire, and oatcakes are distributed with one being marked with a black spot. The one who collects it has to jump through the fire three times. Bonfires would have been on the top of hills, or in the streets in London.

May celebrations have a similarity to Halloween which was also a fire festival and both are uncanny times when sprites and spirits abound. Hawthorn was a favoured wood not only because of its beautiful may flowers but also because it was said to be the wood the crown of thorns was made from. It had the power of resisting supernatural forces, so was used to protect doors, cribs, cow sheds and other places from witches. Witches, it was said, got their power to fly from potions made from infants. The best protection was christening and the custom was that christening took place as early as possible and normally three days after birth. Shakespeare was baptised on 26th April 1564, so we celebrate his birthday on 23rd April. See my post for 29th April on for more on this subject.

Cribs would be bedecked with Hawthorn and protection might be helped by a bible, rowan, and garlic. Babies born between May 1 and 8 were thought to be special children destined to have power over man and beast. Weddings were frowned upon in Lent and in May, so a lot of people married in April.

After celebrations in the evening of April 30th, women would go out in the woods to collect May, other flowering plants, and to wash their faces in May Dew preferable from the leaves of Hawthorn, or beneath an oak tree, or from a new made grave. The dew would improve their complexion and was also used for medical conditions such as gout and weak eyes. Thinking of one’s lover might bring marriage within the year.

May morning would commence with dancing around the Maypole, followed by feasting, and summer games.